Tuesday 20 August 2019

Mrs Allen was the cream of the crop who leaves a legacy of food, laughter and love

Myrtle Allen, the beloved matriarch of Ballymaloe, taught friends and family about much more than food, writes her granddaughter-in-law Rachel Allen

Myrtle Allen helping her great grandchildren Scarlett and Amelia to peel shrimps. Photo: Tim Allen
Myrtle Allen helping her great grandchildren Scarlett and Amelia to peel shrimps. Photo: Tim Allen

Rachel Allen

I remember, when I was little, first hearing about Ballymaloe House from my parents who had been there for a weekend with friends.

They spoke of the delicious home-grown food from the farm and the way that they were made to feel so welcome, as though they were not staying in a hotel but rather in someone's home.

And that was right, as Ballymaloe was firstly the home of Myrtle and Ivan Allen and their six children, and secondly a restaurant with some rooms.

Little did I know back then that many years later I would experience this warm welcome myself when I left Dublin at 18 to learn how to cook at Ballymaloe in Co Cork. After completing the life-changing three-month cookery course with Darina, Ivan and Myrtle's daughter-in-law, I then went into the restaurant kitchen to work under the tutelage of Myrtle - or, as we all called her, Mrs Allen.

There wasn't a titled hierarchical system as I'd heard about from other restaurant kitchens, and definitely no shouting or swearing - more everyone cooking away in their designated sections with Mrs Allen at the helm.

There was no such thing as getting something wrong, it was more about being shown by Mrs Allen how to get it right. And I never once heard her say "Ah, that'll do".

She always came into the kitchen before service started to make sure everything tasted right (with the exception of the Ballycotton Fish Soup and the Dressed Crab, of which Ivan, Mr Allen, was always in charge).

If Mrs Allen didn't think something was tasting how it should, even if the guests were just about to come into the dining room, she would show you how to get it to taste delicious.

Mrs Allen was most definitely a pioneer. She was unknowingly a trendsetter, she just went with her gut, her palate and her very high standards.

She was uncompromising with the quality of ingredients - and had always championed the small producer, name-checking them in every menu, and paying them sometimes over the odds as she knew in the long run that if the producers were being bargained down with their prices, they would not be able to feed their own family properly, and nor would they be able to produce properly.

Fair trade all the way.

When Mrs Allen learned that her grandson Isaac was staying over at the staff flat with me a bit too often at the beginning of our relationship, she generously suggested to Darina and Tim that they lend us a little cottage at the Cookery School in which to live.

Always encouraging and finding a solution, rather than giving out.

As the years progressed and I continued to go out with, and then marry Isaac, I had the pleasure of accompanying Mrs Allen (she said a few times that I could call her Myrtle but I never quite could) on various food trips. One being a memorable week-long chocolate course in England.

I was in my 20s, Mrs Allen in her 70s - always hungry to learn more, never content to sit back on her laurels.

We had such a giggle, learning how to make chi-chi chocolate sculptures that were not really Mrs Allen's style at all - but as usual she got stuck in with typically humorous aplomb and never a hint of arrogance.

Even though Ballymaloe is of course a business, our children, Myrtle's great grandchildren and all of their cousins have always been made to feel so welcome in their great-grandmother's home.

I'm not sure if they were even aware that a serious business was being run around them as they traipsed through the house, soaking wet from the swimming pool, to the kitchen fridges to find food to eat, often to the astonishment of new employees and guests who didn't quite know how Mrs Allen rolled.

I remember being in the cookery school dining room one day and couldn't find our daughter Scarlett - until I spotted her huddled up with her cousin Amelia and great-grandmother learning how to peel shrimps. I'm so glad that my father-in-law Tim managed to catch this very special moment on camera.

It's been said that Mrs Allen was indefatigable, and indeed she was.

One afternoon when I was walking through the dining rooms at Ballymaloe I came across her and she asked me to join her. She had about seven small jugs of cream in a row in front of her on a table with small glasses for tasting.

I asked her what she was doing and she said that she had (after her daily morning swim in the sea, of course) just driven the length and breadth of the county to find some good cream to serve in the restaurant. So we proceeded to drink small shots of cream until we came to the conclusion that one was better, or more to our taste, than the others.

This tireless quest for the best ingredients was typical of the lady with the wicked sense of humour whom we all respected and loved so much.

She was always so graciously kind to me and taught me so much about food and life. I am eternally grateful that our paths in life crossed.

Mrs Allen is now, nearly 20 years later, back with her dear husband Ivan, the wonderfully kind, witty and visionary man with whom she started Ballymaloe, both without whom none of my family, nor I, would be here, doing what we love. I promise that we will all keep Myrtle's flame alight and her legacy going.

And I wonder who she's teaching to peel shrimps in heaven.

Sunday Independent

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